W.Va. facing budget jeopardy as virus cripples economy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Friday said the state might not be able to pay its bills by early June as it faces a growing budget crisis from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor has repeatedly expressed hope that the state will have federal help in filling the nearly $200 million revenue shortfall, even as rules around a massive Congressional bailout package for states prevents such spending.

“I think we’re really good through the entire month of May and probably even out to about June the 10th or whatever,” he told reporters in response to a question about whether the state could meet financial obligations. “But we’re on top of that.”

The date Justice mentioned lands a day after voters would be casting their ballots in the June 9 primary election, where he is facing opposition from a handful of Republicans.

Governors around the country have criticized restrictions on a federal relief fund that has dumped billions in state coffers but only allows the money to be spent on medical costs from the outbreak, not to fill budget holes. West Virginia received $1.25 billion from the package, and Justice is optimistic that he will be able to backfill the dramatic losses of state revenue with federal dollars.

“I really believe our state is going to be fine,” he said, adding that he has some unspecified “inside baseball information” that makes him “feel like we’re going to be OK.”

Justice has not detailed his plans for spending the $1.25 billion, though state Senate Democrats have asked that $500 million be put toward emergency grants for small businesses. In response to a question about the money on Friday, Justice said “we’re going to make good decisions” without further explanation.

The governor, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman without previous political experience, has pushed forward with an aggressive plan to reopen the state’s economy while loosening testing benchmarks without explanation.

This week, hospitals were allowed to resume elective procedures along with the reopening of outpatient services such as physical therapists and psychologists. Small businesses, churches and restaurants with outdoor dining can open Monday. Remaining businesses will open in the following weeks.

Justice’s reopening plan hinges on having the state’s positive coronavirus test rate remain below 3% for three days, reversing a previous goal of having the number of new cases decline for two consecutive weeks. Officials have not explained why the benchmark was eased but maintain that the state has enough downward trend lines to warrant lifting restrictions.

State health data show there have been no significant declines in the total of new positive cases when measured day-by-day. Democrats in the House of Delegates have pointed out that it would take a severe outbreak for positive test rate to budge because the governor’s metric factors in thousands of old tests.

The Justice administration has not given clear benchmarks on what kinds of testing capacity and safety equipment inventory it wants to have as part of the reopening strategy.

Around 1,100 people have the virus after about 47,000 tests, according to the state health department. At least 47 people have died.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can bring about more severe illness and even death.

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